CONCORD, N.C. - Welcome to the Hendrick family, Kasey Kahne.
Kahne pulled away to victory in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night, winning NASCAR’s longest race for the third time and gaining his stripes for Hendrick Motorsports the only way that matters - taking the checkered flag.
Kahne wondered earlier this year when that might happen.
The self-imposed pressure grew last week at a party Hendrick threw to celebrate the owner’s 200th win Jimmie Johnson earned at Darlington Raceway two weeks back. Kahne was introduced as part of the current team - after the 15 drivers who won races for Hendrick took a bow. Kahne said the gathering showed him what Hendrick has meant to the sport - and how much he wanted to add to that legacy.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,’’ Kahne said.
And it was a popular triumph. Teammate Jeff Gordon rushed up to hug Kahne and told him, “Proud of you.’’
Kahne led four Hendrick cars in the top 11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth and Gordon was right behind in seventh - only his third top-10 finish of the year. Johnson came in 11th. He was vying for more but fell from contention with a mistake on the final pit stop as he left the stall with his gas can still engaged, dragging crew member Brandon Harder behind him. Harder was not hurt in the tumble. Johnson was docked with a stop-and-go penalty that ended his chances at winning a third straight week.
Kahne crossed the finish line nearly five seconds ahead of Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch was third and series points leader Greg Biffle fourth. It was Kahne’s 13th career win and first since November in Phoenix.
Kahne can’t stay away from competition. He drives in NASCAR Truck races when the Sprint Cup series is off and raced this weekend in the World of Outlaws dirt track contest across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Kahne led 96 laps, including the final 42. He doesn’t see why the winning can’t continue.
“I just know that the cars and the people we have that Mr. Hendrick gives us is everything that we need to win,’’ Kahne said.
Danica Patrick, the first woman to drive in the race since Janet Guthrie in 1976, was five laps down in 30th - her best finish in three career Sprint Cup races.
For much of this race, it looked as if Biffle wouldn’t be caught. He led 204 laps to dominate early and was clearly best as the race began in the hot, bright sunshine. Once the night cooled off the track, Biffle was no match for Kahne.
“Kasey’s car was just better at night,’’ Biffle said.